Henry Trevett Channing (January 17, 1760-August 27, 1840) was the uncle and mentor of the leading exponent of American Unitarian Christianity, William Ellery Channing. He played a role in the earliest days of the Unitarian controversy.
The youngest of seven children of Mary Chaloner and merchant John Channing, Henry was born in Newport, Rhode Island. His sister Mary married George Gibbs, who with Henry’s brother Walter established one of the most successful New England mercantile firms of the day. His brother John was a sea captain and privateer in the Revolution. His brother William, father of William Ellery Channing, served as Rhode Island Attorney General during the Revolution and as United States District Attorney for Rhode Island.
Henry entered Yale College as a junior in October 1779 after Ezra Stiles became president. Stiles had been the family minister in Newport and friend of his parents. After graduating, Channing stayed on to study divinity and was licensed to preach by the New Haven Association in 1782. He was a College Tutor, 1783-86. In 1791, he was considered for Professor of Divinity at Yale. Stiles recorded to his diary that “Mr. Chainings Abilities & Acquisitions & Scholarship are Superior. He is a little tinctured with @&%, and wants the mansuetude & Wattsian sweetness of manners; but I believe would do well.”
In 1786 a tragedy occurred in New London, Connecticut. A thirteen year old Pequot girl murdered a neighboring six year old white girl in revenge for what the white community thought a “petty offence” and was condemned to death. Sent by Stiles to the execution, Channing preached a sermon, God admonishing his People of the Duty, as Parents and Masters, to an immense throng, “many of whom were completely overpowered.” As a result, Channing was immediately called to become the minister of the Congregational Church in New London. Stiles attended the ecclesiastical council in 1787 and gave the ordination sermon.
Channing married Sally McCurdy in 1787. They had nine children, all sons, four of whom survived into adulthood. Sally died in 1798.
From the beginning of his career Channing favored Arminian over Calvinist theology. While settled in New London, he began to have further theological doubts. Stiles wrote in his diary in 1791 that Channing was among those “giving up the eternal generation of the Son,” doubting “whether this was a scriptural doctrine.” Channing never preached his emerging Unitarian beliefs. Nevertheless, according to his great-nephew William Henry Channing, he “preserved a spirit free and bright, cheerful in hope and utterly intolerant of bigotry.”
The following year, 1792, the twelve-year-old William Ellery Channing, was sent to New London to prepare for college under the care of his uncle. William Henry Channing later recorded that Henry was “singularly exacting of courteous respect” and “though kind of heart, was severely precise in manners.” In spite of this Henry and William Ellery developed a lifelong closeness. Together, they were intrigued and impressed by a series of revivals in New London. William’s deep and lasting participation in religion began under the influence of his uncle.
In 1794 William left for Harvard College. Henry wrote to him, “We never can forget such a nephew, or rather such a son” and “We know that your situation and your genius justify us in forming the most flattering ideas of the future eminence of our nephew.” Learning of his aunt’s last illness, William wrote back, “Can I ease your burdens? Consider me a son. . . . You know that it would constitute the happiest circumstance of my life to contribute to your happiness or the happiness of your family.” Called to one of Boston’s mercantile churches in 1802, William wrote to his uncle, “I hope, sir, you will be present, & preach the [ordination] sermon. Your fatherly goodness is a stronger motive than your near connection with me, for soliciting this favor. In this most solemn act, I wish you to bear a part. You have had no little share in conducting me to the choice of the sacred profession.”
Although he never preached his unitarianism, Henry Channing’s theological views eventually came under scrutiny. After John Sherman (1772-1828), minister in Mansfield, Connecticut, published the first formal and elaborate defense of Unitarianism in New England, One God in one person only: and Jesus Christ a Being distinct from God, dependent upon Him for his existence, and his various powers; maintained and defended, 1805, Channing was selected chair of a council to dismiss him from his church. The council also included Aaron Bancroft, later first President of the American Unitarian Association, John Thornton Kirkland, later President of Harvard College, and Abiel Abbot of Coventry, Connecticut, who would later be subject to the same treatment as Sherman. Channing advocated so strongly for Sherman’s point of view that he was censured by the council. In 1806 Channing requested and was granted dismissal from his own church.
Channing served the Congregational Church in Canandaigua, New York, 1808-11. He left Canandaigua because, as he later wrote, “poor health forbad my preaching.” On a visit to Boston in early 1811 he wrote to his brother Walter that “the brotherhood greet me with great cordiality, excepting [Jedidiah] Morse and his compeers, whom I wish not to take to my bosom.” While searching for a new settlement he corresponded with his nephew. William wrote him, “I fear that the spirit of intolerance is extending itself through the state, & that men, who will not enter the ranks of the prevalent party, will not easily obtain a settlement. In this state of things, I lean to the opinion that your wish of ‘a form of retirement’ with occasional preaching will place you at once in the happiest & most useful condition.”
Although his health improved Channing was never settled again. After living in Newport, Channing returned to New London in 1817. He was twice elected to the House of Representatives of Connecticut on the Toleration Ticket, a brief but successful alliance of Connecticut Republicans and opponents of the Connecticut Standing Order. The author of the Yale sketch of Channing recorded that, “He was also charged by some with instigating [disestablishment] legislation distinctly intended to annoy his former ministerial brethren.”
Around the age of 60 Channing moved to New York City where he lived with his son William, a leading homeopathic physician. In 1839 William Ellery Channing wrote to Orville Dewey who was settled in New York, of one of the major issues in the Channing family, slavery, “By the way, say nothing to my Uncle, if you meet him, of the cause of my failure to preach. My anti-slavery labours have been very painful to him as well as some other friends. I never name the subject to him—as I wish in no way to disturb his last days.”
Henry Channing died in New York City and his body was returned to Rhode Island where it was buried in the ancient family burial plot in Newport’s common Burial Ground.
Letters and papers relating to Channing can be found at the Massachusetts Historical Society and in the Yale University Archives and Manuscripts. Several of Channing’s sermons were published, including The Consideration of Divine Goodness an Argument for Religious Gratitude and Obedience (1794), a funeral sermon (1789), and a masonic address (1796). Short accounts of his life are found in William B. Sprague, Annals of the American Unitarian Pulpit (1865) and Yale College, Biographical Sketches, Class of 1781. Information can also be gathered from William Henry Channing, Memoir of William Ellery Channing (1848); Silas Leroy Blake, The early history of the First church of Christ, New London, Conn. (1897); Edward Elbridge Salisbury, Family Histories and Genealogies (1892); Ezra Stiles, Literary Diary of Ezra Stiles (1901); John White Chadwick, William Ellery Channing: Minister Of Religion (1903); Samuel A. Eliot, Heralds of a Liberal Faith, 4 vol. (1910); and Jack Mendelsohn, Channing: The Reluctant Radical (1971).
Article by Frank Carpenter
Posted May 13, 2003